Jane Friedman’s abrupt departure from HarperCollins has a much more complicated plot than preliminary reports have had it. And as with all things in the News Corp. empire, a lot of it goes back to things happening inside the corporation’s ruling family, the Murdochs.
According to a source close to her, Friedman lost a key ally three years ago with the departure of News Corp.’s then-heir apparent, Lachlan Murdoch. “She was very close with Lachlan, and after he left, she reported in to [current president and COO Peter] Chernin,” says the source. “And he has a lot of things to do. It was just a different relationship.”
Without the prince’s protection, HarperCollins became just another corporate division trying to make its numbers. And nobody says being in book publishing is easy these days — which is why Time Warner, for example, sold off Warner Books. Likewise, Rupert had at least considered selling HarperCollins, leading to a broader reassessment of the company’s valuation.
Friedman’s latest three-year contract would have been up in November, and in recent months, it seems her preliminary negotiations had been dragging. “If they want cutting [of staff and imprints],” says the source, “it’s a lot easier for someone new to do it than for her, because she was gonna stand in the way of it.” Then there was the (premature?) firing of Judith Regan and the ensuing lawsuit, which left the company looking damaged and without its greatest earner. When last month Random House hired 39-year-old engineer CEO Markus Dohl, it began to seem inevitable that HarperCollins would look to Friedman’s future-minded number two, 41-year-old Brian Murray, to replace 62-year-old Friedman. “When you have a competitor who brings in someone who’s so much younger, there’s a motivation for your company to do the same,” the source says.
The source didn’t deny there might have been contributing factors to the fallout — not just Regan’s departure but Friedman’s notorious ego and credit-hogging — but firmly denies disappointing profits had anything to do with it. “This idea about the numbers is total bullshit, because the numbers throughout the year are gonna be pretty strong. You’ll see that in a few weeks. She just had one bad quarter.” So the exit negotiations had begun before BEA, the story goes, and the expo was her swan song, a lame duck’s opportunity to solidify her legacy with a valedictory walk and a blowout party on the Fox lot. But it was News Corp.’s leak to Gawker on Wednesday that ruined Friedman’s exit music. “It was pretty clear that [HarperCollins] was trying to get the upper hand and drive the coverage” — to look like they were in control. It then became impossible for Friedman to stay another day. “She wasn’t going to sit there and be this piñata for speculation.” —Boris Kachka